ACLU Files Lawsuit On Behalf Of Muslim Woman Forced To Remove Head Covering In Georgia Courthouse
Lisa Valentine Jailed After Protesting Policy That Violated Her Religious Liberty
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ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit today on behalf of a Muslim woman who was told she could not enter a municipal courtroom unless she removed her religious headgear and was jailed for contempt of court when she protested.
In December 2008, Lisa Valentine attempted to accompany her nephew to his traffic hearing before the Douglasville Municipal Court, but was told it was against court policy to wear headgear in court. After protesting and while attempting to leave, officers restrained and arrested her, forced her to remove her head covering and jailed her for several hours.
"By locking up Ms. Valentine and forcing her to remove her head covering in public, officers not only showed extreme indifference to her fundamental right to practice her faith, but also humiliated her and caused her unnecessary emotional suffering," said Azadeh Shahshahani, an attorney with the ACLU of Georgia.
After being informed by an officer that she would have to remove her head covering, Valentine attempted to leave the courthouse and expressed her frustration with the policy to the officer. She was prevented from leaving, handcuffed and taken before the judge who sentenced her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. Valentine was then taken to the booking area, where she was made to remove her head covering. She was detained first at the temporary holding facility at the courthouse and then in jail for several hours without her head covering before police determined that Valentine did not fight with officers and that her "actions were primarily verbal and her resistance passive." She was released that evening.
"I hope that no person of faith will ever have to experience the type of egregious treatment I suffered at any Georgia courthouse because of the expression of my beliefs," said Lisa Valentine.
"Ms. Valentine's treatment by these officers and the judge was plainly unlawful and simply wrong," said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "The government should never intrude on anyone's basic right to observe her faith, let alone throw her in jail for asserting her right to do so."
Following Valentine's arrest, the judge issued a rule allowing for "special provisions" to be made for those who choose to wear religious head coverings in the courtroom, and the City of Douglasville issued a press release admitting that the officer who stopped Valentine did not inform her of an alternative procedure that would have allowed her to keep her head covering.
In July 2009, the Georgia Judicial Council adopted a policy clarifying that religious head coverings can be worn in Georgia courthouses. The policy, which balances courts' security concerns with individuals' fundamental right to religious liberty, was presented by the ACLU of Georgia to the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Access and Fairness in the Courts at a June 2009 meeting. Valentine testified about her experience during the council meeting. The policy serves as a recommendation to courthouses, and is not binding.
"Everyone who comes into a courtroom should feel that they are equal in the eyes of the law," said Ariela Migdal, staff attorney for the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "The officers were wrong to enforce the 'no headgear' policy in a way that discriminated against a Muslim woman practicing the tenets of her faith."
The lawsuit against the City of Douglasville and the arresting officers charges that Valentine's First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated, as well as her rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and asks the court to ensure that religious head coverings will be allowed in the courthouse.
Attorneys on the case include Joseph F. Hession and Gail Podolsky of Carlton Fields, P.A.; Chara Fisher Jackson and Shahshahani of the ACLU of Georgia; Migdal and Lenora M. Lapidus of the ACLU Women's Rights Project and Mach of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
The complaint can be viewed at: www.aclu.org/religion-belief-womens-rights/valentine-v-city-douglasville-complaint